Uneasy calm reigns in Benue State. And the reason is obvious. The governorship election petition tribunal may soon deliver its judgment on the petitions filed against Governor Samuel Ortom of the All Progressives Congress (APC), having concluded submissions from the parties in dispute. As legal experts would say, ‘a case is only as good as the lawyer who argues it.’ Both oral and material evidences have been submitted and the counsels to the parties concerned have made their submissions. So, victory could go either side. For the ordinary watchers and sideline spectators, this is just one of those cases. But for a legal battle that has generated so much controversy, one night of suspense could be a nightmare for any of the parties involved. As it were, the anxiety is already at a feverish stage. The debate as to who laughs the last laugh is now a talking point in the state.
The peculiarity of the Benue State governorship election dispute is about its doule- edged sword. One is from within the ruling parties and the other by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). For the former, the dispute is about who the authentic governorship candidate of APC was in the April governorship election. The case challenging the authenticity of Ortom’s candidacy was instituted by Hon Emmanuel Jime who was in January adopted as the party’s consensus candidate, Senator JKN Waku, and others at the Federal High Court, Abuja in suit number FHC/ ABJ/ CS/1057/14. The PDP, on the other hand, had gone to the Benue governorship election petition tribunal in Makurdi to claim that APC had no candidate at the time of the election and as such, its candidate Terhemen Tarzoor be declared winner of the poll.
Many concerned stakeholders believe that APC had deliberately walked itself into this dilemma. In its submissions before the tribunal, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had testified that APC did not conduct primary in Benue State. The PDP capped it all by showing a clip of Ortom’s interview on Channels TV where he said he became governor not through any initial primaries but through ‘God’s doing.’
In the face of overwhelming evidence against the Ortom, the party is now jittery, fearing that judicial judgment could go in favour of the PDP. Consequently, the National Working Committee has been making desperate efforts to resolve the crisis even though it refused to do so when it had every opportunity to intervene in the controversial matter before the election. In the prolonged crisis, the NWC has lost it credibility to proffer an amicable resolution.
This has prompted President Muhammadu Buhari to intervene in the matter and subsequently set up a 10-man committee to save his party at the tribunal. It was gathered that the president expressed his serious disappointment in the NWC in the way it handled the matter when it was brought to his notice. But as a last minute move, he made a passionate appeal to Senator Joseph Waku and his other contenders to withdraw the suit from the Federal High Court, Abuja, which he graciously did.
This action has indirectly put the president on the spot, as he is now caught between the proverbial devil and the blue sea. All eyes are watching. If he is able to resist the temptation to interfere in the tribunal matter and allow the natural justice to take its course, his image as an anti-corruption crusade would be greatly enhanced. But the price may be too grave for the party if it loses the state in the process.
The dilemma again is: which of these two cases comes first? A source within the aggrieved party members told us that APC is on a zero-sum game. According to him, if the tribunal judgment comes first, Benue State may be the first causality in the post election disputes. In the same breadth, it may coast home to victory, if the ruling on the suit filed by Waku and others comes before that of the PDP. It is really a dicey situation. The chance is clearly 50-50.
Without a doubt, losing the state at this time may be a bad omen for the party that is just struggling to consolidate its hold on power in the face of the threat of the opposition PDP. But the signs are ominous. However, one thing is significant here. If APC loses the state, no matter how painful it may be, it will teach the party a lesson on the need to caution against impunity and reckless abuse of due process in the future. As a ruling party with its change mantra, it should be able to lead by example. Apparently, somebody somewhere must have ripped from the current crisis at the expense of innocent party members. But regrettably, they will all pay for it if the state goes in the way of PDP.
The party’s National Legal Adviser, Dr Muiz Banire, saw the signal when he wrote the leadership calling for an urgent action. The letter reads in part: “Please recall that after the emergence of Dr. Ortom Samuel Ioraer as the governorship candidate of our party for the April 11, 2015, governorship election in Benue State, other governorship candidates who felt aggrieved by his emergence, protested against the alleged non-compliance with the provisions of our party’s constitution and guidelines for the conduct of primaries. Eventually, four of the governorship candidates jointly commenced an action in Suit No: FHC/ABJ/CS/1057/2014 by which they challenged the process of the emergence of Dr. Ortom Samuel Ioraer as the party’s governorship candidate. This suit is still pending in court.”“It is equally imperative to draw your attention to the fact that, upon the conclusion of the election, the PDP candidate filed a petition challenging the election of Dr. Ortom Samuel Ioraer. Part of the grounds of the petition for challenging the election is that the process, which produced Dr. Ortom Samuel Ioraer as our party’s candidate, breached the provisions of the Electoral Act. To substantiate his petition, the petitioner is also relying on several documents which the Plaintiffs in Suit No: FHC/ ABJ/CS/1057/2014 pleaded in support of their case.”“Mr. Chairman, there are grave issues which are at the root of this impasse which I have constrained myself from revealing through this medium but which I shall share when the leaders of the party are gathered. Suffice however to say that with the present happenings in the various courts, we may be endangering that seat in favour of the opposition People’s Democratic Party.“It is in the light of the foregoing that I humbly advise that the party considers setting up a high-powered panel to intervene in this Benue State impasse urgently with a view to reconciling all the parties and saving our party from public opprobrium.”
As learnt, Waku has agreed to withdraw the suit from the court following the intervention of the president. But it is still a matter of serious debate whether or not this last minute decision could salvage the situation. For obvious reason, the image of the president is on trial. It now depends on which side of history he wants to be. Due to deliberate negligence and impunity, his party, APC, is walking on a tight rope. Through the conspiracy of some people, it has boxed itself to this corner. Considering the options before him, the president has much to gain letting the state go, if judiciary deems it fit, than interfering in the course of justice. This is a litmus test for the anti-corruption toga of Buhari.